The Constructive Conflict Approach

LennonWallImagineBy Louis Kriesberg

(Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Realizing Peace (Oxford UP, forthcoming 2015)) The constructive conflict approach is presented in this book as a realistic perspective to understand the dynamics of all kinds of social conflicts, and thereby provide ways to improve the benefits and efficacy of Americans’ participation in foreign conflicts. This approach is an increasingly influential alternative to conventional adversarial thinking. Some elements of this approach are becoming increasingly adopted in many social arenas, or at least particular terms from it have become frequently used, such as “win-win,” “conflict transformation,” “stakeholders,” “mediation,” and “dialogue.” In order to assess the potential advantages and disadvantages of applying this approach, it must be set forth clearly.

[pullquoteright]The fields of peace studies and conflict resolution and many related fields of study continue to evolve in interaction with each other.”[/pullquoteright]The concept of peace, as used here, should be defined at the outset. It is commonly understood in two meanings, negative peace and positive peace.  Negative peace refers to the absence of direct physical violence, of wars.  Positive peace includes the absence of structural violence, the institutionalized inequities in basic living standards. It is also sometime extended to include harmonious relations. My usage is close to negative peace, with the addition that relations are not unilaterally and coercively imposed by one group upon another within the same social system.

The evolving constructive conflict approach has emerged from the conflict resolution and the peace studies fields. Since the end of World War II, and especially since the 1970s, research, experience, and theorizing about how conflicts can be waged and resolved so they are broadly beneficial rather than mutually destructive have greatly increased. An overview of the perspective is presented in this chapter and later chapters analyze, illustrate and apply the various beliefs and practices more fully so that their adequacy can be better judged by the reader.

Early work in conflict resolution and peace research focused on why wars broke out, why they persisted, and why peace agreements failed to endure. Knowing why bad things happened was assumed to suggest how good things could occur by avoiding doing what preceded the destructive escalations.  This has some obvious limitations. Later research and theorizing has focused on what actions and circumstances actually have averted destructive escalations, have stopped the perpetuation of destructive conduct, have produced a relatively good conflict transformation, or have resulted in an enduring and relatively equitable relationship among the former adversaries. A comprehensive approach to accounting for such transitions is evolving which integrates many factors and processes.

These conflict resolution ideas have steadily evolved from the early years of the conflict resolution field in the 1950s, when it became identified as an area for research, theory-building, training, and practice.  Much of the research and theory-building was based on studying the actual practice of peacemaking and peacebuilding by officials and by private citizens. That kind of work was a central part of the field of peace studies, which preceded the emergence of contemporary conflict resolution. For both, at the beginning, research methods included single or multiple case studies of decision-making in crises, effective international mediation, nonviolent conflict escalations, peacemaking negotiations, and peacebuilding. They also included quantitative analysis of arms races, international mediation, international conflict negotiations, and building peaceful international relations..

In addition, two other research methods were used to study basic ideas and practices in the fields of peace studies and conflict resolution.  One method entailed interpersonal and small group experiments related to negotiation styles and outcomes, maximizing mutual gains, and the formation of superordinate goals. The other major research method was the analyses of interactive problem solving workshops by scholar/practitioners. In these workshops participants come from countries or other entities that are in conflict and engage in analyses of the conflict and explorations of possible ways to overcome contentious issues. The sessions are guided and facilitated by conveners of the workshops, often academics.

The fields of peace studies and conflict resolution and many related fields of study continue to evolve in interaction with each other.  As these fields have grown in scope and empirical grounding, the lessons learned have been taught and have spread into the public arena.  As workers in these fields learn, teach, and apply what they have learned, these ideas continue to be tested and refined.

Those ideas have evolved in tandem with the episodes of American participation in foreign conflicts that are examined in this book. The interactions between those involvements and the fields of conflict resolution and peace studies during the last several decades are central in this work …

To read the whole of Chapter 1: Toward More Constructive Conflicts, click here.

Share us!